The Kansas City Royals are driving fantasy baseball owners nuts this season.
Entering March, many were excited about the possibilities of this team, coming off its first winning season since 2003 and scoring more runs than it allowed for the first time in 20 years.
But last year's progress was more of a testament to the Royals' pitching staff than a milestone for their offense. They actually scored just 648 runs -- their lowest total since 1994.
The retention of Pedro Griffol, the hitting coach who took over midseason last year, and the addition of table-setters Norichika Aoki and Omar Infante provided optimism for a breakout 2014 in Kansas City. The Royals already had promising hitters in Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez, and they appeared a few tweaks away from becoming a run-scoring machine.
For the first two months of the 2014 campaign, the Royals foundered near the bottom third of MLB offenses, with very few players showing any life at the plate. Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar were really the only valuable Royals hitters in April, and only Gordon's number held up into May.
At the end of May, Royals management switched things up once again, installing Dale Sveum as the team's new hitting coach, nearly a year to the day after the team hired Griffol.
At the time of Sveum's hire, the Royals ranked last in the American League in runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage. They were also second-to-last in on-base percentage, which means the Royals were bad at getting on base and bad at hitting for power. That's essentially a fantasy black hole.
Following Sveum's arrival, the Royals suddenly turned things around at the plate, scoring 18 runs in his first two games and putting together a mid-month 10-game win streak. The Royals followed up that win streak with a four-game slide entering Monday, but the offensive surge in the first half of June was too good to ignore.
Fantasy owners may be encouraged by how well the Royals hit in the second half of the 2013 season. Hosmer and Butler hit 38 and 39 points better, respectively, after the All-Star break, Perez also finished strong, and the Royals went from 24th in runs scored to 14th. On the other hand, Aoki and Infante have been disappointing atop the order, and Aoki will be out of commission for the next two weeks nursing a groin injury on the disabled list.
If Sveum can continue to stabilize the offense's production, then the fantasy appeal of Royals regulars will be back in vogue soon.
Hitters of the Week
Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Milwaukee -- Stats this week: .500 BA, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 9 Runs scored, 0 SB
Ramirez' resurgence, along with steller first halves from Braun, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy, has the Brewers ranked fourth in the majors in runs scored and behind only the Rockies for top honors in the National League. Milwaukee has been one of 2014's biggest surprises, and Ramirez is hitting .377 with 17 RBI in June, rebounding well from a May hamstring injury. He's coming off a soft schedule this past week, including a trip to Coors Field, and he gets four games against the Rockies at home later this week.
J.D. Martinez, OF, Detroit -- .444 BA, 4 HR, 11 RBI, 6 Runs, 0 SB
Martinez revamped his swing in the offseason and is batting .310 in 36 games after the Tigers signed him this spring. The Astros outright released him, and judging by their 24th-ranked offense, they could use him back. Martinez hit 10 home runs in 17 games at Triple-A Toledo before joining the big club, and Torii Hunter's hamstring injury last week helped land him in Detroit's everyday outfield. When Hunter returns, the Tigers will have to find at-bats for Martinez in a crowded lineup.
Anthony Rendon, 2B/3B, Washington -- .360 BA, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 5 Runs, 2 SB
Rendon came on the scene last year for the Nationals, and after a lackluster May, he has rebounded with an excellent June, hitting .299 with five home runs and 15 RBI. At 24, he's the youngest player in a pretty old lineup, with six hitters over 29. He could lose his 2B-eligibility next season if he doesn't play there more in the second half, but even if that happens, he's currently a top-10 third baseman. (Hopefully, you bought low on him a few weeks ago.)
Hitters of the Weak
Andrew McCutchen, OF, Pittsburgh -- .167 BA, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 1 Runs, 1 SB
Entering last week, McCutchen was red-hot in June, bringing his batting average for the season up to .325 with seven home runs and 18 RBI in the first 14 games of the month. After two three-game sets against the Reds and Cubs, his batting average dropped back to .312, but even this minor slump isn't putting a dent in an outstanding June slash line of .346/.418/.728.
Chris Davis, 1B, Baltimore -- Stats this week: .120 BA, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 2 Runs, 0 SB
Davis has had more bad weeks than good this season, but few were as bad as this week. Davis needed a review by the umpires to help him record his lone homer of the past week, a grand slam against the Rays. He's hitting just .187 in June, but his five home runs and 12 RBI equal the totals he posted for all of May. No one has more strikeouts over the past four weeks than Davis' total of 39.
Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto -- .177 BA, 0 HR, 2 RBI, 3 Run scored, 0 Steals
Bautista has a defensible excuse for his numbers, as he has been dealing with some tightness in his left leg for the past few days. He leads the American League with a .433 on-base percentage, and he has 15 home runs and 49 RBI on the season, and he's scheduled to have an MRI Monday to determine the extent of his injury.
Buy: Eric Hosmer, 1B, Kansas City
Despite the Royals' ascension up the offensive rankings, Hosmer continues to disappoint at the plate. It's tough to invest in a first baseman with just four home runs on the season, and Hosmer hasn't eclipsed 20 homers in any season of his career. Plus, he's just 24 years old, with room to grow from a power perspective. The hope is that Sveum can help bring that power back up a bit, considering his ISO is just .106, down from his career .142 mark. Fangraphs points out that Hosmer's batted ball distance had increased each season since his rookie year, up to 297 feet in 2013. At the end of May, his batted ball distance this season was just 263 feet. The gamble is to buy Hosmer cheap, bet Sveum can help him and hope Hosmer can have another good second half like he did last season.
Sell: Khris Davis, OF, Milwaukee
The second-year outfielder has ramped things up considerably since mid-May, hitting .322 with seven home runs and 22 RBI over the past four weeks. Only three other hitters have more RBI in that span, including Ryan Howard (25), Lonnie Chisenhall (23) and Edwin Encarnacion (23). However, even with those numbers, Davis is batting just .260 on the season and he's striking out four times for every walk (although that rate has improved since April). Wait until after this week, when Davis faces several lefties, whom he has hit .358 off of this year. Cite his hot numbers over the past month in trade proposals, and watch for him to come back to earth once he's off your roster.
Hold: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs
Rizzo is certainly in a breakout season at age 24, but he's coming off such a hot month that I wonder if now is a perfect time to move him. Over the past 28 days, he has seven home runs (nearly half of his 15 on the year) with 19 RBI and a .314 batting average. Rizzo is already drawing comparisons to Joey Votto, and he has brought up all of his peripherals this season, so selling high seems a little short-sighted.
Rookie Hitter Spotlight
James Jones, OF, Seattle
Jones was the Mariners' 27th-ranked prospect according to Baseball America, and the 25-year-old was expected to work at Triple-A Tacoma until later this season. Since taking over center field for good in early May, his speed has been a sparkplug for the Mariners' offense. Billy Hamilton is the only rookie with more steals than Jones' 12 this season. At 6-foot-4, he's a tall player with speed and a bat we haven't heard much from yet. If he can practice more patience at the plate (eight walks in 171 at-bats), he could become even more dangerous.
By the Numbers
42 -- Runs scored by the Padres this month, the fewest in the majors. No other team has scored fewer than 63 runs.
42 -- Home runs hit by the Cardinals and by the Royals, lowest in the majors.
36 -- Points Robinson Cano's batting average has risen since James Jones joined the lineup on May 5.
9 -- FAAB dollars spent on Tigers OF J.D. Martinez in Tout Wars, after he hit four home runs last week.
5 -- Stolen bases for Dee Gordon in June, compared to the 21 bases he stole in the month of May.
5 -- Rookie hitters hitting a home run at least once every 20 at-bats, including Jose Abreu (11.6 AB/HR), Mike Olt (15.4), George Springer (16.9), C.J. Cron (18.7) and Josmil Pinto (19.3).
4 -- Times Yasiel Puig has been caught stealing over the past four weeks, compared to two successful steals.
.390 -- BABIP for Carlos Gomez, which is 71 points higher than his career average.